BEIRUT: Sleepy is not a word that comes to mind when describing Beirut’s horn-pounding urban fabric. But in the late afternoon, a rare sense of calm prevails over the handful of meandering streets and lush alleyways between St. Georges Hospital and the Linda Sursock Palace. Like the two 19th-century landmarks, many of the arched-stone homes sandwiched in between them date back to a similarly forgotten era, eclipsed by the dozens of glass residential towers sprouting up across the city.
“Nothing has changed here for 100 years,” says a 68-year-old frail man from behind a small window. Indicative of ancient construction, his home’s outer walls are made of uneven hunks of sandstone, surrounded by a derelict courtyard that once linked the adjoining residences, now crumbling and abandoned.
Winding a few hundred meters down, behind a row of triple window Levantine mansions lies a vast stone-terraced orchard. Its olive grove, giant oak and sprawling berry bush are overseen by a two-story stone farmhouse, a rare living example of Beirut’s vanished agricultural livelihood and one of the few remaining green spaces in the exhaust-choked city.
“It’s a lost paradise,” 25-year-old activist Giorgio Tarraf says. “It has survived by a miracle. What a shame to see it all demolished by the state.”
Tarraf’s reference is to the Beirut Municipality’s Fouad Boutros road project, a four-lane flyover and tunnel that will plough through the orchard and pummel up to 30 homes and properties, wiping out much of what remains of the old neighborhood known as Hikmeh.
Named after a former deputy prime minister, the 1.3-km road is estimated to cost at least $75 million with work expected to begin by mid-summer.
Government officials claim the Boutros road will serve as a “missing link” joining Alfred Naccache road, which runs in front of Spinneys Ashrafieh and the Charles Helou expressway near the Port of Beirut. Yet because it was planned in the 1960s, when Beirut was far less developed in terms of roads, buildings and vehicles, critics have alleged that the project is outdated and may cause more congestion than it relieves.
Popular activist groups such as Save Beirut Heritage and The Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage have teamed up with a number of architects and urban designers to draw up plans for an alternative: the Fouad Boutros Park. Preliminary sketches see abandoned mansions turned into museums and verdant community spaces, celebrating the city’s architectural and agricultural heritage and potentially generating revenue to maintain the project.
But the municipality is not hearing any of it.
“Any alternative proposals are not considered at this stage,” says Nadim Abu Rizk, the deputy mayor of Beirut. “We have listened to them enough and I think we are taking into consideration all that is valid.”
Abu Rizk says the project has been mischaracterized by activists, adding that it would be "enhanced in the way that we see it should be enhanced.”
“We are not building a highway, our vision is a boulevard. Most of it will be underground, no one will feel its presence.”
He says the road will feature “open spaces, gardens and pedestrian areas.”
But when asked for details about these design features, the deputy mayor refused to divulge any specific plans or documents related to the project, saying only that the municipality was considering either a press release or a press conference, but could not say when either would take place.
“We will choose the right time to show what we have.”
Asked whether the public was entitled to access the project documents or have a say in the process, Abu Rizk replies: “We always like to hear from the public when they are talking on genuine and technical issues, why not? But at the end of the day, the decision is ours.”
Civil society groups beg to differ. In addition to being shut out of the decision-making process, they allege that the government has failed to produce key studies looking at how the Boutros road will affect the flow of traffic on connecting roads as well as the pace of development, both of which may contribute heavily to congestion.
“It is now known that highway urbanism proved to be harmful,” says George Arbid, AUB professor of architecture. “By adding more wide streets in the city, you bring in more cars.”
Indeed, in major metropolitan areas such as Paris, Madrid and Seoul, city administrators are reversing the trends of 1950s and subsequent decades-- when the car and the motorway were king. In these and other global capitals, inner-city road networks are being dismantled or rerouted to encourage foot traffic and public transport.
But in Beirut, despite Abu Rizk’s claim that “most” of Boutros will be underground and out of sight, figures from the Council for Development and Reconstruction, the state agency tasked with managing the project, suggest otherwise. In fact, according to the CDR, the tunnel portion will stretch for 229 meters, while the majority of the 1.3 kilometer road will actually run above ground through a series of flyovers at Charles Malek Avenue and Armenia Street before connecting to the Charles Helou freeway.
“It will cut through the city fabric, disturbing neighborhoods and killing the garden,” says Arbid, who also serves as the director of the Arab Center for Architecture. “You will not have the same pedestrian flow.”
He is among a growing number of experts who say Beirut’s traffic problem needs to be addressed by optimizing existing streets and investing in public transport to reduce the number of cars.
A similar argument was put forward by Harvard professor Hashem Sarkis, who called the Boutros plan “ridiculously obsolete,” in an open letter to Beirut’s mayor last month.
“Today, I would consider quality of movement to be far more important than quantity. Quantity of roads is what is creating the traffic,” wrote Sarkis, director of the Agha Khan Program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.
Some urban planners argue that the Boutros road will not make life easier for drivers either.
Urban planner Karim Attoui lives right above the planned tunnel portion of the project. From his rooftop, he points out a network of narrow streets that weave around a cluster of traditional red roof homes – all of which will be razed during the tunnel excavation.
Of particular concern is Salah Labaki Street, a one-way that is choked with traffic on most days during rush hour. The CDR plan raises one-ways like Labaki above the tunnel, keeping them connected on top through a series of roundabouts and turnaround lanes. But these will also serve as the access roads of the tunnel and flyovers, adding more lanes to an already overburdened above-ground street network.
The addition of exit and entrance ramps to accommodate Boutros on already heavily congested roads could make matters worse, Attoui says.
“If you are linking two gridlock points, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happens. You are just extending the gridlock.”
In addition, the ramps built on cramped two-lane Charles Malek will cut out sidewalks and access points to a number of restaurants, churches and schools that line the road.
“How will you drop your children off at school? How will restaurants receive supplies?” asks Raja Noujaim, a retired quality control expert and member of The Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage.
Noujaim, Attoui and others argue that Boutros road will also have uncalculated long-term effects, attracting more cars, higher property values and ultimately more high rise development in the area.
In the long run, they say this will put a strain on roads that connect to Boutros, such as frequently congested Alfred Naccahe, which runs next to the ABC mall and cannot be expanded.
“Where is the traffic simulation? Where is the social, economic, or environmental impact study” asks Noujaim. “They are refusing to do anything.”
But at his office in the Grand Serail, CDR engineer Elie Helou dismisses activists’ concerns as “at least 80 percent wrong.”
He says the Boutros project is based on a 2003 feasibility study with an updated traffic count in 2011. But despite repeated requests, neither document could be made public.
Helou says there is “no need” for a social impact study because much of the homes slated for demolition have been abandoned and were already appropriated by the state in the 1970s.
In terms of environmental impact, concerns were also minimal: “We have not found any good elements to worry about. The flora and fauna are almost nonexistent, there are few trees, no water tables,” he said.
But opponents of the road would argue that such an assessment is neither comprehensive nor current. In fact, as is often the case in Lebanon, a number of families are still squatting on the appropriated land and activists say social impact on the the broader Ashrafieh community extends well beyond the individual homes that are leveled.
The idea that few trees exist in the area may be hard to reconcile for any visitors to the fruit orchard and surrounding streets, which are considerably greener than other parts of the city, owing largely to the stalled 50-year-old plan.
Still Helou is confident that there is a need for the road and promised repeatedly to deliver traffic data to prove this. But as The Daily Star went to press, Helou said that traffic maps would be delayed for an additional two weeks because “the consultant working on it had to leave for an emergency.”
Requests for maps of the project’s controversial overpass at Charles Malek, Armenia and Charles Helou streets also remain pending.
When presented with activists’ concerns about bottlenecks and circulation flow, a traffic expert familiar with project said assessments could not be made in the absence of hard numbers provided by the CDR.
But he added that the project’s usefulness and $75 million price tag warrant a full audit.
“Since 20 years in this county we develop and develop roads, and again and again, the performance is low,” the expert said on the condition of anonymity. “We have to reach another solution, such as increasing capacity by developing buses and tramways.”
“This huge amount of investment deserves an overview,” he added. “It should be the municipality’s approach to have a grand public debate with the proper tools of simulation.”
Deputy Mayor Abu Rizk disagrees.
“We cannot just adhere to anyone who has ideas – I mean we are the elected members, we have a policy, we have a strategic plan for that area regarding everything.
“We are the ones who will take the responsibility for our decisions.”
Helou strikes a similar tone, saying public participation, to his knowledge, was neither enshrined in the law nor a viable policy. “Usually we don’t build public consensus on projects,” he says. “It’s never happened since I’ve been here since 1996.”
Civil society groups say that mentality needs to change. Antoine Atallah, a Paris-based architect who contributed to the park proposal, says there was virtually no public involvement in the project.
Indeed when asked about their preference, several neighborhood residents said they had never heard of alternative plans such as that of the park. None had been given any specific warning about the roadway either, even those living in its potential path.
“It was a purely technocratic way of acting, whereby a group of individuals, supposedly knowledgeable, decides to impose something huge on the lives and environment of the city’s inhabitants,” Atallah said in an email.
Activists say they are planning a number of events to resist the road.
“We will block this project at every single stage,” says Save Beirut Heritage president Giorgio Tarraf. “They are going to be held accountable for every building they demolish, every tree they uproot.”